I ran across this in Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist (The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature):
The compelling nature of the great tragedies stems from the fact that their heroes, instead of escaping an atrocious fate, plunge into the abyss—which they have dug with their own hands—because they have no idea what awaits them; and we, who clearly see where they are headed so blindly, cannot stop them. We have cognitive access to the world of Oedipus, and we know everything about him and Jocasta—but they, even though they live in a world that depends parasitically on our own, do not know anything about us. Fictional characters cannot communicate with people in the real world.
Such a problem is not as whimsical as it seems. Please try to take it seriously. Oedipus cannot conceive of the world of Sophocles—otherwise, he would not wind up marrying his mother. Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world.
But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here-and-now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world. This is why successful fictional characters become supreme examples of the “real” human condition.
This struck me for several reasons. The thing I’m still chewing over is the realization that I often act as if I assume that the world, like a book, has a reader, someone who is outside the story and sees the thing whole, someone who sees the pits that I am digging for myself and knows when I’m about to fall into one of them. Sometimes I want to see my own story whole; sometimes I want to ask an omniscient viewer, “What will happen if I do this?” I realize consciously that these things are impossible, but sometimes, especially when I’m making a difficult decision, I have a subtle but persistent sense that if I could just climb above my day-to-day circumstances for a moment, there’s a definite answer, a complete world, that I, like this mythical reader of the world, could see.
Maybe I believe in this reader because I’m a lifelong avid fiction reader, and I extrapolate too freely from fiction to life. Or maybe it’s because I was taught as a child that there is an omniscient god who knows and sees all (even though I left that deity behind long ago). Maybe it’s a common human bias because, when we’re children, we depend on these beings who know so much more than we do that they may as well be omniscient. As we grow up, we continue to consult experts, and indeed parents and experts do have a lot of useful things to tell us about what will hurt and what will help.
Of course, the tragedy of Oedipus, and many other fictional characters and real people, is that although someone in their own world might have been able to answer the question that could have saved their lives, kingdoms, marriages, jobs, reputations, and so on, it never even occurred to them to ask it. Eco’s point is that we, like fictional characters, often think that what we know of the world is what there is to know of the world. Even so, most meaningful questions are too complicated for simple answers, and if we think to ask for information, the best question we can come up with is often a broad, less answerable one, like “Should I go to Thebes?”
I think I’m fairly comfortable with the answer “It depends,” but lurking in my heart is a foolish belief that on the big, consequential questions, there are much more definite answers available, and there is some entity that can see them and perhaps share them. Maybe I should put these thoughts in the mind of a fictional character and see how his or her author (that would be me) responds. Or have I just disappeared down a rabbit hole?